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Holy Family with The Infant Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth

Attributed to Bonaccorsi Pietro called Perin del Vaga

(Florence 1501 - Rome 1547)

Attributed to Bonaccorsi Pietro detto Perin del Vaga, seguace fiammingo

Of unknown provenance, the painting was first mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in 1693, when the inventory of that year ascribed it to Perin del Vaga (Pietro Bonaccorsi). The work undoubtedly has a connection to circles of Raphael’s followers and shows elements relative to mid 16th-century Mannerist currents in Rome, Florence and Bologna. While not all critics have been persuaded that this is an autograph work by Perin del Vaga, most agree that his influence is apparent. Some scholars have in fact proposed that it is a product of a Flemish follower of his active in central Italy.

Object details

Mid-16th century
oil on canvas
cm 139 x 112

Salvator Rosa, 149.1 x 127.5 x 8 cm


Borghese Collection, cited in Inv. 1693, room I, no. 10; Inv. 1790, room V, no. 8; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 10; purchased by Italian state, 1902. 

  • 1984 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1953 Alvaro Esposti
  • 2006 Paola Mastropasqua


The canvas depicts the Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth. The figure of Mary almost completely occupies the scene as she holds the Child, whose unsettled position calls our attention to the fact that he has just grabbed an apple from the plate of fruit offered to him by the young John the Baptist. Only half of the last-named figure is visible in the lower right-hand corner of the composition. Saint Elizabeth – who some have identified as Saint Anne – can be glimpsed behind the Child on the left, while Joseph appears in the distance together with his ass. The light coming from the opposite side of the painting strikes the Madonna and Child directly, leaving the other figures in the shade, such that the two principal protagonists are foregrounded. In addition to its symbolic purpose, the illumination exalts the delicacy of their flesh and creates a splendid shimmering effect on the sleeve of Mary’s garment (Stefani 2000, p. 230). Another noteworthy detail is the neckline of her dress, which Jesus holds on to, evidently to keep his balance: his gesture alludes to a motif deriving from Raphael. Other interesting elements include the transparency of the Virgin’s veil, John’s attire and the cloth that covers Jesus at the height of his hips.

Of unknown provenance, the work has formed part of the Borghese Collection since at least the late 17th century. The inventory of 1693 in fact lists it with the following description: ‘Below this work, a painting of the same dimensions with the Madonna, Child, St Anne and a putto who brings fruit to the Child, no. 116, with a gilded frame, by Pierin del Vago’. The attribution to Perin del Vaga (Pietro Bonaccorsi) is repeated in the 1790 inventory (‘A Madonna and Child, Perin del Vaga’) and in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario (‘Holy Family, by Pierin del Vaga, 5 spans wide, 6 spans 2 inches high’).

Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 197), however, raised doubts about the name of the Florentine painter, opting rather for an attribution to Domenico Fetti. Yet neither Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 217) nor Paola Della Pergola (1959, pp. 108-109) was persuaded by his thesis. Both of these critics favoured the original attribution to Perin Del Vaga; Della Pergola in particular drew attention to the arrangement of the scene, the conspicuously large space occupied by the Virgin, and the depictions of the two infants to support her view.

The canvas is undoubtedly linked to circles of Raphael’s followers and combines elements of Mannerist culture prevalent in Rome, Florence and Bologna. In light of the use of colour and the rendering of the material elements of the composition, it is possible that the painter in question may be a Flemish artist active in central Italy around the mid-16th century. This thesis was first put forth by Della Pergola (1959) and later received the support of Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2006, p. 135), who in fact catalogued the work as a product of a Flemish follower of Perin del Vaga. 

Pier Ludovico Puddu 

  • M. Vasi, Itinéraire Instructif de Rome ou Description générale des monuments antiques et modernes, 2a ed., Roma 1792, p. 392;
  • E. C. Platner, Beschreibung der Stadt Rom, III, Stuttgart 1842, p. 283;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 325;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 197;
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1912, n. 412;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 217;
  • U. Da Como, Girolamo Muziano, Bergamo 1930, p. 134;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma (“Itinerari dei Musei e Monumenti d’Italia”), 5a ed., Roma 1957, p. 37;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 108-109, n. 158;
  • P. Della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese el 1693 (I), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, 1964, p. 220, n. 10;
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese 2000, p. 220, n. 3;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 135.